Cycling has taken Cherise Willeit on a journey filled with love, success, heartbreak and tears, but she has come out stronger and more determined than ever to make a success of it.
Growing up, Willeit had an unwavering desire to carve out a career in the sport – and that’s exactly what she did.
In 2008, she appeared at the national championships for the first time and rode away with the road race title. Later that year she won the Cape Argus – now the Cape Town Cycle Tour – and competed at the Olympic Games in Beijing.
“I never doubted cycling was what I wanted to do. I just wanted to get matric over and done with so that I could ride my bike,” she said.
In the years that followed, she went on to win another road race and two individual time-trial titles at the national championships, took overall honours in the African Continental Championships road race and married fellow cyclist Burry Stander.
Heartbreak followed when, one year later in 2013, her husband was killed while cycling. The loss came as a huge blow to Willeit and she struggled to find joy in the sport for some time after the tragedy.
“After Burry passed away it was a very difficult time,” she said.
“Cycling was such a big part of me but at the same time it took such a big part of my life away. It was very difficult to see the beauty in the sport and find the love in it.”
In the time that followed, she admitted she had cycled simply for the sake of it, not because she found any joy in it.
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder and that was certainly the case for Willeit who, four years later, is remarried to Benjamin (Benno) Willeit, mother to a one-year-old boy and enjoying her renewed love for the bike.
Although her pregnancy delayed her return to the road, Willeit said it was undoubtedly the catalyst that set her on the path to podium finishes at the Knysna Bull as well as Bestmed’s Jock Tour and Cycle4Cansa this year.
While racing overseas two years ago, Willeit reached a point where she was ready to return to full-time racing, with the Olympics being the main goal.
“I remember saying to Benno that I wasn’t sure what I should do; whether I should try race for a team overseas or if I should stay on the mountain bike.
“Then, the next day, I found out I was pregnant,” she said.
“I still don’t think it was ever a conscious decision. I just decided about three months after Thomas was born that I really wanted to feel healthy and good about myself and cycling helps me do that.”
Along with running, it is once again a regular part of her life and she said it was an ideal opportunity to spend time with family while maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle.
She often includes her son in her training and her family can often be seen alongside her at the start of events or cheering at the finish.
Willeit said while she would ultimately like to reach a point where she can secure a sponsor, her goals have changed compared to when she first set out to conquer the cycling circuit.
“It’s not just about racing for me, it’s also about showing other moms that they can race and be a full-time mom,” she said.
“I think it’s so much a part of who I am and my personality that being back on the bike is just incredible and I’m loving every second of it.
“Only once I didn’t have that I realised how lucky I was. It’s a big part of my life and I’ll forever be grateful for it.”